Proper-nouned possessions and status.

This one is about language, based on observations from my "everyday life." You may be asking, are air quotes pretentious? Yes. Yes they are, and that's what I'm going to discuss today. The trend of possessions (a requisite of capitalist society) and the unnecessary use of proper nouns to describe those possessions that afford their owner a level of status. The following example is not meant as a judgment, merely an broad case of the forthcoming point:

Imagine two men driving cross-country. They are friends, or at very least burgeoning acquaintances. They hear a clunk from their car, and a puff of steam rises through the seams between the hood and front quarter panels. The car dies and they are forced to pull over.

Man A says, after looking at the steaming, overheated engine, "We've gotta call a tow truck."
Man B replies, "Not to worry. I have my iPhone."

Now what's odd about that? Nothing really... But consider how unnecessary, especially given the situation, it is for Man B to state not only his possession of a phone, but of an iPhone. The same could be true of a couple leaving a house, the woman saying, "Honey (assuming such pet names apply), do you have everything you need before we leave?" To which the man could reply, "Yes, dear, I've got my keys and my iPhone."

There is a special class membership afforded to people owning an iPhone. I've noticed this through overheard conversations, and even through the chosen language of the people I know and love. Instead of stating simply, "I have my phone," or even the specific, "I've got my cellphone (cell, mobile--for the Europeans), iPhone owners seem often compelled to say that they are holding, carrying or talking to people on their iPhone. As I said this is not meant to be a point of citation. I wouldn't dream of affording a moral value to this phenomenon. But, why do iPhone owners tend to call out the specificity of their device?

One point is that the iPhone is marketed to be so brand-heavy that to not say "iPhone" feels foreign. Each night, for those of us who watch television, the iPhone greets us repeatedly per hour. It is, after all, Apple's prerogative to grind the existence and product name into our collective consciousness as a way to making us not only consciously, but unconsciously desire their products. But why does a Motorola of model number A, or a Razr, not elicit the same linguistic change? I have a Razr myself, and have never said, "I've got my Razr." It's just a phone, and nothing about it, other than shape and make, define it otherwise. This model applies to the Blackberry, which is essentially a phone/text/email device, but doesn't go by any name based on its function. It instead is simply a Blackberry, now and forever. It has its own mystique, its own reality and its own context.

Another point is that the iPhone is, like the iPod, an item that defines itself apart from everything else. I own an iPod, and have never, ever referred to it as my mp3 player (unless in the context of explaining its function to a less tech-savvy person). Other brands of mp3 players, Creative, Sony, etc., don't carry the same cultural capital. So, by defining (through marketing, popularity or function) the way a device should function, you get to name it. Is that a fair conclusion? We can look at the case of phonographs being long referred to as Victrolas, but that doesn't seem sufficient. The only cases beyond the archaic/antique I can think of are the most expensive, and most prestigious items. Those items that define you within a certain frame of society go by their proper names.

For example, a Rolex is always a Rolex, and not as often merely a watch. A Porsche is always a Porsche and less often only a car, or sports car. Now, in both of these cases, it can be argued that there are numerous brands of watches and makes of automobiles, so differentiation is necessary for specificity. But why are we specific? Partly, of course to paint a more vivid picture of what we are describing, especially in a case where the object described is not present for viewing; but also because we want people to know what we have. There is value in the object's make that reflects on us and our position in society as a whole. It defines us as one of the haves, apart from the have-nots. We can easily see that owning a Porsche is better than owning a Kia, or another automobile for the purposes of status and "cool". A Rolex is a better watch, in functionality and in cultural capital than a Casio. And for that reason we are likely to call out our ownership to the people around us as a way of establishing ourselves, our uniqueness, within the group.

There was a time, however, when merely owning a car or a phone or a record player was a boon to ones cultural capital in and of itself. In the early 1900s being one of the lucky few to have these items demonstrated status merely by appearance. It didn't matter who made the phone or whether you had a Ford or a Benz, both were cars, both were rarities and both construed a similar amount of capital upon their respective owners. So, why now, is it so important to have specific things? To call out those proper nouns? To bestow an additional level of detail on the claim of status?

Proliferation. When "having" isn't enough to define us in a world where everyone seems to have a cellphone or a car, it becomes infinitely important to specify what one has. And the more valuable, trendsetting, function-specialized, the better. Cultural capital has succumbed to inflation in that way, so things don't garner as much respect or "cool" as specific things do. We are left with little option, but to clearly name our possessions, not just for the status, but to define our unique part in the our sub-cultures. Gun owners know which guns are best (I do not, but one can imagine that there is a better hunting rifle to have than just the basic model). Car owners strive for the Mercedes, Porsches and Maybachs. We find our station in society not entirely based on what technologies we do or do not have, but what specific brands of those technologies we can afford to carry. And thereby language changes, from a time when saying "I have a cellphone" was a point of prestige, to now stating, "I have an iPhone" to gain the same status. Language maintains its culturally-centered fluidity and certainly always will. After all, I'm writing this blog not merely on a laptop, but on a ThinkPad.

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